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A Look Into the Fragile Lives of Mediterranean Migrants

Photographer Myriam Meloni explores the ongoing struggles of migrants and refugees who cross from Africa to Europe.

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Migrants might spend months or years in Tangier, Morocco, trying to earn enough money to cross the sea to Europe.

In the series “Different Shades of Blue” Myriam Meloni photographs Marie, a young migrant from Cameroon, wearing her life jacket and facing the foggy blue void of the sea. For the third time in one year, Marie is preparing to step off the shore of Morocco and into a boat she hopes will carry her to Spain, where she can pursue employment opportunities that are elusive in her home country. But once again, she and her fellow passengers are turned back by the coast guard before reaching their destination.

“Marie once said to me that the sea was her only hope and her biggest fear,” recalls Meloni, a French-Italian photographer based in Barcelona. Marie's statement inspired both the title of the series and the repetitive use of a darkening blue sea.

“Hope can be identified with a clear color, and fear is something that can be identified with a stronger and darker color," Meloni says. "In the middle there are a lot of feelings represented by nuances of blue.”

In Meloni’s series, blue images of the Mediterranean Sea reflect the shifting emotions of the migrants and political refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who are living in Tangier, Morocco, while attempting and failing to reach Europe. Looking north across the sea from Morocco, the images begin brightly, symbolizing the positive outlook embodied by those who've recently arrived in Tangier. The hue of the sea darkens as the series progresses, representing depression and fear of the future, which develops as the months and years pass and Spain is still not reached.

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The Mediterranean Sea is seen from Tangier.

The sea punctuates the series in a similar manner to the way it punctuates the migrants’ conversations, Meloni says. “The sea is always present … They are speaking about it everyday.”

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Aissa, 35, escaping war. “My parents [were] murdered when I was ten years old. I fled up to Ivory Coast. I worked in a family that exploited me as a maid for years. I got married. I've been happy for 15 years. But when my husband was killed during the war in Ivory Coast, I had to flee again, and with my four children.”

Portraits accompanied by short excerpts of the migrants’ stories are placed between the images of the increasingly foreboding sea. “I decided to use a chronological narrative,” Meloni explains. She did this both in the images of the sea progressing from morning to night over a symbolic day and by beginning with the most harrowing stories of people leaving their countries. The stories then follow the migrants across the continent to Morocco and end with the final preparations to cross the Mediterranean.

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The Mediterranean Sea is seen from Tangier.

The quiet portraits, many taken in threadbare apartments, reveal a sense of paralysis and isolation, as well as the loss of identity afflicting many of the migrants. “The walls are empty because they don’t carry anything with them when they leave,” Meloni says. "They are very far from typical African decoration and color. The apartment complexes all look the same, [and] there is nothing to reflect their personality.”

The objects Meloni photographs serve a similar purpose to the portraits. In the image of the mirror, for example, nobody is visible in the reflection, illustrating the notion that the migrants “don’t recognize themselves after months or years of living a way they don’t want to live. They don’t have money to do the activities that reflect their personalities."

The images of the sea, the portraits, and the objects work together to form a powerful illustration of the hardships of being a migrant or refugee—not just the boat trip across the sea or the fence at the border but also the before and after, the sense of inability and isolation.

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The Mediterranean Sea is seen from Tangier.

“I’ve had feelings of paralysis at times in my life. It’s something with which I can empathize, and I understand how hard it is to lose the ability to have expectations,” Meloni says, explaining why she chose to focus on the period of time when the migrants are caught in limbo, existing somewhere between the end of their old lives and the start of something unpredictable.

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Josephine, 27 and eight months pregnant, and her partner Ben Alex, 30, have been living in Morocco for more than a year. Ben Alex sporadically works in construction to get money for food and to pay rent on a small room.

“Different Shades of Blue” was photographed over the course of 12 months in 2014 and 2015. Meloni was particularly drawn to Morocco because she wanted to tell a story that was close to the country she's called home for many years—Spain. Her intent was to avoid speaking about statistics and numbers, instead creating an intimate series that gives a voice to the individuals that are a part of the larger immigration phenomena. “Every story is important," Meloni says. "Everyone has a different background and everyone needs to have the chance to make their lives what they want."

Over three trips, each about a month long, Meloni tried to find the same people each time so that she could observe their evolving experiences and attitudes. She was particularly interested in telling the stories of women—often invisible, she believes, in narratives of immigration.

The woman facing the sea in her life jacket, Marie, is a person with whom 36-year-old Meloni developed a close relationship. “I think we had a good connection because, first of all, she’s a woman. Secondly, we’re almost the same age,” Meloni says. Like Meloni, who originally trained as a lawyer, Marie has an advanced degree, a master’s degree in economics. The two have similar aspirations and share a love of cinema. “She’s a very educated girl, and after trying to get the proper work in her country she decided that she wanted to move, to immigrate, because she just wanted to make something more of her life."

Marie, who at last made it to Spain, is preparing her documents to gain official refugee status. She’s living in a house with other vulnerable people, like drug addicts and those with mental health issues. For the first time, she's facing the reality that living in Europe can also be very difficult.

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A young migrant tries on the life jacket she'll use in her attempt to cross the Mediterranean. At least 3,371 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015.

Maloni says, “I hope I can make a happy story with her and have the chance to photograph her in different conditions in Spain, and not Morocco, again.”

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The Mediterranean Sea is seen from Tangier.

“Different Shades of Blue” will be exhibited at PHEST, an international photography festival, in

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy, from September 16 to October 30, 2016.

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